by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
You may remember celebrating Thanksgiving by tracing your hand to create the outline of a turkey and hearing the story of the harvest meal celebrated by Pilgrims and American Indians in 1621. Edward Winslow’s December 11, 1621 letter references a harvest meal that would become the basis for the “traditional” Thanksgiving story. Winslow wrote,
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Of course, the traditional account by Winslow and others does not tell the whole story. Historian Perry Miller points out in his 1953 book, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, “For the Puritan mind, to fix thanksgiving to a mechanical revolution of the calendar would be folly: who can say that in November there will be that for which thanks should be uttered rather than lamentation?” At minimum, the Thanksgiving holiday celebration was not consistent with the Calvinist beliefs of the first generation of Separatist/Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. It is an invention of subsequent generations of Americans.
But the story of cooperation and celebration that schoolchildren in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century learned is not necessarily the story that children will hear today.
In fact, the North Carolina Standard Course of Study does not mandate that teachers deliver a lesson about Thanksgiving at all. Rather, state standards direct educators to teach about national holidays as they occur throughout the year. The state standards for first grade, for example, require students to know why nations celebrate holidays, the distinction between national and religious holidays, and the cultural and historical significance of the holidays celebrated. Presumably, the requirement that can be met by highlighting any holiday selected by the teacher.
For educators who choose to deliver a lesson on Thanksgiving, teachers are asked to set the record straight on the myths and realities of the traditional Thanksgiving story. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction offers a list of resources for teaching about Thanksgiving in light of competing historical interpretations and cultural considerations. One of the links provided by NC DPI is “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving’” on the Oyate website, which claims,
Both the Separatists and Puritans were rigid fundamentalists who came here fully intending to take the land away from its Native inhabitants and establish a new nation, their “Holy Kingdom.” The Plymouth colonists were never concerned with “freedom of religion” for anyone but themselves.
Similar interpretations can be found by searching the “truth about Thanksgiving” on the internet. The idea that, at its core, Thanksgiving celebrates the brutality of Europeans who settled in the New World is a page out of the radical Howard Zinn school of historical thought. The Zinn Education Project contends,
Thanksgiving Day celebrates not justice or equality but aggression and enslavement. It affirms the genocidal beliefs that destroyed millions of Native American people and their cultures from the Pilgrim landings to the 20th century.
Today, teachers are encouraged to address conflicts between colonists and American Indians in their Thanksgiving Day lessons. This is a far cry from the Winslow letter and the traditional account of the encounter between Pilgrims and American Indians in the early 1620s. I’m not sure this is an improvement. Clearly, the conflict-based account precludes the kinds of benign commemorations that decades of elementary school children enjoyed. Despite their historical inaccuracies, which warrant acknowledgment and correction, lessons on Thanksgiving in elementary school were designed to be celebrations of friendship, gratitude, discovery, and other virtues that seem to be in short supply these days.